A Dark Room
Officer Eloy Escareno crept down the dimly lit hallway with his gun drawn, calling for the children to come out of their hiding places.
It was late afternoon on March 12, 2004 in a hardscrabble neighborhood of Fresno, California. Escareno was one of several officers summoned to a small blue home at 761 W. Hammond Ave. to settle a child custody dispute that had turned violent. Two women — accompanied by a large group of supporters — demanded the return of their small children, but the numerous occupants of the house refused to hand them over. In the middle of the conflict stood a 300-lb. man with graying dreadlocks trailing to his knees. As the two sides screamed insults at each other, the man stood calmly in the doorway helping the police tease out the situation.
When the rival factions came to blows, the man told the police he wanted to say goodbye to the children and disappeared inside the house, closing the door behind him. He emerged 80 minutes later with blood staining his clothes, and the officers ran inside.
Wesson is arrested by police.
If he needed any more proof that something was sickeningly wrong, Escareno, 33, got it when he noticed the caskets stacked against a wall in the living room. He continued to call out for the children, telling them it was safe now, to come out. As he moved down the back hallway, his colleagues searched the rooms behind him.
The closed door opened to darkness. Holding his gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other, Escareno panned the weak beam across the room and saw an indistinct mass on the floor. Feeling along the wall, he found a switch and flipped on the overhead lights.
It looked like a scene from a slasher movie. There was a pile of bodies on the floor, babies, kids, young women. Nine total. Blood pooled around them on the ground. The bodies were still warm, and Escareno yelled for an ambulance, then started grabbing wrists, searching for the pulse of life. He found none. He howled in angry impotence at this slaughter of innocents, and his colleagues rushed to pull him from the room.
Officer Eloy Escareno
Eloy Escareno, veteran Fresno police officer, had just stumbled onto the biggest mass murder in the city’s history, and the tangled case was about to get a lot more gruesome. In the following months, the extent of the household’s darkness would be fully exposed as evidence emerged of systematic child abuse, an obsession with vampires, and a deranged father who perverted the Bible to create a harem using his own daughters and nieces.
Marcus Delon Wesson
The corpulent 5’9″ man looming at the center of the conflict was 57-year-old Marcus Wesson, the patriarch of the brood living at Hammond Ave. With his pug dog face and Medusa-like tangles of hair, Wesson was an intimidating sight, and rightly so.
DNA tests would quickly reveal the household’s dirtiest secret: Wesson was the father of all nine victims, seven of whom were spawned from sexual relations with his own daughters and nieces.
The list of the dead included Jeva St. Vladensvspry, 1; Sedona Vadra, 1 ½; Marshey St. Christopher, 1 ½; Ethan St. Laurent, 4; Jonathon St. Charles, 7; Aviv Dominique, 7; Illabelle Carrie, 8; Elizabeth Breani Kina, 17; and Sebhrenah April, 25.
Seven of the nine murder victims
Of those, only the two eldest were born of his wife. The rest were products of incest.
To understand how Wesson — or anyone, for that matter — ends up leading such a twisted existence, it’s instructive to examine their childhoods. Wesson had the misfortune of being born to a booze-addled, sexually degenerate father and a mother who was a Jesus junkie, according to press accounts. The two extremes combined perfectly to create the Bible-thumping pervert that would become Marcus Wesson.
Born in Kansas in 1946, the young Marcus followed his family’s drift from Missouri, to Indiana, to California, to Washington. Father Benjamin Wesson never held a steady job, and stayed home, drinking and “flirting” with his own children, according to the Fresno Bee. There was abundant evidence that Benjamin Wesson had homosexual inclinations, the paper reported. A childhood acquaintance of the family would later testify that the senior Wesson once paid him $50 as a boy to submit to oral sex. He later ran off with a teenage male relative to San Jose before returning to his wife and family a decade later.
Marcus Wesson’s mother, Carrie, was a Seventh-day Adventist who force-fed her children daily Bible lessons and whipped them with an electrical cord, a relative would later tell a court. As a child, Marcus Wesson’s favorite game was to play preacher, a pastime he would perfect over the decades as he twisted the scriptures to his own perverse ends.
Wesson’s sexual history reads like a Greek tragedy in which the protagonist is doomed to commit the same atrocities again and again with no hope of redemption. In the 1960s, Marcus Wesson had sex with one woman, years later with her daughter, and decades later with her granddaughters. The tragedy ends with the children conceived with the daughter and granddaughters lying in a bloody puddle on the floor.
After his honorable discharge from the Vietnam War, where he worked as an army medic, Wesson settled in San Jose. There he met and moved in with Rose Solorio, who was 13 years his senior and already the mother of eight children. The two had a son together.
When Solorio’s daughter Elizabeth was 14 and Wesson was 27, he impregnated her as well. They got married in 1974, forever sealing Elizabeth’s role as subservient child to his domineering adult. The couple had five boys and four girls.
In 1989, Elizabeth’s sister Rosemary dumped off her seven sons and daughters at the Wesson home because her drug addiction precluded her from caring for them, according to media reports. The total number of children living in the Wesson household rose to 16.
The family had no consistent income, and the large brood lived off welfare and took shelter where they could find it, alternately dwelling in an army tent, a trailer, and on derelict boats before settling in Fresno. Although his children were frequently reduced to digging through trashcans for food, Wesson always had money to buy hamburgers and other fast food, the Fresno Bee reported.
Years later, when she was asked on the witness stand why her husband didn’t work, Elizabeth Wesson would reply without a trace of irony: “You can’t work when you are on welfare.”
Wesson’s worldview was a viciously sinister one. He believed society was full of sin and peril and cloistered his children to shield them from it. In the confines of their home, they were mercilessly exposed to the biggest danger they’d ever know: their own father.
The Wesson case has drawn many comparisons to that of Winnfred Wright, a religious and polygamous nut job from San Francisco who ruled his three common-law wives and 13 children with an iron fist until one of his offspring died of malnutrition. Like Wesson, Wright didn’t work, kept his children isolated from society, and ordered his women to financially support him.
Child abuse is another commonality. When Wesson’s children didn’t do their homework or Bible lessons, he hit them with a stick wrapped in duct tape or small baseball bat. They weren’t allowed to have friends and seldom left the house. When the kids did cross paths with strangers, they barely said a word, leaving the impression that they were polite and well-behaved when in fact they were extremely maladjusted to social interaction. At the Fresno house, Wesson’s numerous children were so well hidden that many neighbors didn’t know of their existence until they learned of their deaths.
Brainwashed from a young age, the children believed everything Wesson said. They had no sense of what was moral or socially acceptable — all they knew was Wesson’s law. He told them he was Jesus Christ, demanded their unwavering obedience, and got it.
A Harem All His Own
At one point during their upbringing, Wesson segregated his household, forbidding even brothers and sisters from associating with each other. According to his warped logic, he believed his children would develop sexual feelings for each other.
Meanwhile, he cultivated his daughters and nieces to act as his adoring geishas. They washed his dreadlocks, scratched his armpits and belly, and did his beckoning.
Illabelle Carrie Wesson
When the girls were 8 or 9, Wesson started molesting them. First he fondled their breasts and genitals, then taught them oral sex, until finally he was having full-on intercourse with them. He called these routine rapes “loving” and told them it was a “father’s way to show affection for his daughter,” Ruby Sanchez would recall in court.
While even the most primitive cultures in the world denounce incest as taboo, Marcus Wesson enthusiastically endorsed it. He justified his sickness by reading the girls Bible passages containing references to men with multiple wives.
“God wants a man to have more than one wife,” he’d tell them.
Ruby Sanchez would later tell a stunned courtroom that she agreed to “marry” Wesson when he was 44 and she was 13. During a ceremony performed in a bedroom, Sanchez put her child’s hand on a Bible and Wesson covered it with his own, making her recite vows that culminated in an “I do.” Wesson did the same with his two daughters and another two nieces. He encouraged his child brides to compete for his affection, and they often grew jealous of the private time he spent with their siblings.
“Making Children for the Lord”
When the girls reached high school, he forbade them from talking to boys. Dating was out of the question. Later Marcus Wesson Jr. would testify that he found it strange his sisters didn’t date, but that when he asked one of them about it, she simply replied, “I’m not into it right now.”
Wesson was fascinated with David Koresh, the cult leader in Waco, Texas, who took multiple wives. The family was glued to the television during the federal siege of the group’s compound in 1993 during which Koresh and 80 followers died.
“This is how the world is attacking God’s people,” Wesson told his family, according to the Fresno Bee. “This man is just like me. He is making children for the Lord. That’s what we should be doing, making children for the Lord.”
Not long after, Wesson started breeding with daughters and nieces. He told them he wanted to have one child with each of them, but he couldn’t stop himself and kept impregnating them. The young women viewed themselves as surrogates for Elizabeth Wesson, who could no longer bear children.
Some of the girls still had normal teenage inclinations. Wesson discovered Ruby Sanchez flirting with boys and beat her severely. She ran away three times, but always returned, having nowhere to go and not wanting to leave her child. But when she turned 22, she left for good and got married, according to the Fresno Bee. Her sister, Sofina Solorio, also left. Away from Wesson’s pernicious stranglehold, the young women finally realized what it was like to lead a normal life. They became furious when the learned that Wesson continued to impregnate their sisters and cousins, and worried about the welfare of their small children. On that fatal March day, they drove to the Hammond Ave., determined to rescue their kids.
Beginning in the early 80s, the family squatted in the Santa Cruz Mountains in a large army tent, according to neighbors. Wesson didn’t work and attended church meetings almost nightly.
The Santa Cruz Mountains
“He shunned money because he said there was a better way — give your heart to God and he’ll provide,” Ron Wonhoutka told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The family also lived on a on a 23-foot sailboat that was permanently moored in the Santa Cruz marina. The kids would scrounge for bottles and cans on the beach to turn in for recycling money and bathe in the public restrooms.
Local officials soon caught wind that a sailboat owner was living off public generosity and in 1989, charged Wesson with welfare fraud and perjury. He pleaded guilty and spent six months in the county jail.
By the fall of 2003, the family had moved onto a 63-foot tugboat in Tomales Bay, an hour north of San Francisco. The concrete-and-wood boat was rotting and didn’t have a bathroom. In the tiny village of Marshall (population 50) where it was moored, the Wesson family stood out as eccentric loners. The sight of the Wesson girls — dressed in long black skirts and veils — rowing their father ashore in a dinghy turned many heads.
“They rowed him like they were slaves,” one resident told the Marin Independent Journal. “I had (them) pegged as some sort of Jonestown cult.”
The kids kept to themselves, rarely talking to locals and avoiding eye contact. Residents noticed that several of the girls had lisps and that even in hot weather they wore clothes covering their bodies from neck to ankle.
At one point four or five of the girls were pregnant. Although they had jobs at a nearby convention center, their father controlled their paychecks to the point where they were forced to pool their nickels and dimes to buy food at the general store, residents told the Point Reyes Light.
In the fall of 2003, sheriff’s deputies ruled the tugboat unsafe for children and ordered it vacated. The family moved to Fresno soon afterward, where they bought a 1,066-square-foot converted office building on W. Hammond Ave. and parked a yellow school bus in the driveway.
The Wesson Home
They didn’t try to assimilate into the tight working class neighborhood. The kids rarely left the house, and the women didn’t engage in over-the-fence pleasantries. They kept their eyes to themselves, hung their heads submissively whenever they were spoken to, and mumbled their responses.
City officials told Wesson that the school bus was too large to park in the neighborhood and that their home didn’t meet standards for residential housing. They were given until March 12, 2004 to resolve these zoning issues. One can only speculate as to whether or not the impending deadline set into motion the horrific events that occurred that same afternoon.
The sisters knew they faced an uphill battle when they arrived at the house. Marcus Wesson had made a deal with them long ago: if they ever abandoned his home, they had to leave their children behind.
In the event that Child Services or another government agency came to split up the family, Wesson gave his offspring chilling instructions, which were later related in court by Sofina Solorio.
If the authorities tried to remove the children, Wesson told his daughters and nieces to first murder their offspring before killing themselves. He would stay alive to explain their decision to the public, according to the plan. Solorio said the family held monthly meetings to discuss the details of the suicide plot, including how to shoot to kill.
Rosa Solorio later testified that Wesson frequently talked about the second coming of Christ and asked his children whether they were ready to “go to the Lord” — or kill themselves.
Shortly after they moved into the Fresno home, Wesson purchased 12 mahogany coffins at an antique store.
Perhaps the coffins figured into Wesson’s obsession with vampires. The family watched dozens of vampire movies and took vampire middle names. Wesson didn’t see any conflict between his belief in a Christian god and vampires because “they are both immortal,” according to the Fresno Bee.
The owner of the antique store told the press that a group of somber children loaded the caskets into a yellow school bus. How chilling to think they may have carried the same coffins in which Wesson intended to place their corpses.
Police remove a coffin from the scene.
According to witness accounts, Ruby Sanchez and Sofina Solorio pulled up to the Wesson house around 2 p.m. on March 12, accompanied by several carloads of young people.
“I came to get my son,” Solorio said, rushing into the house to find 7-year-old Jonathon. She had the boy by the hand and was walking out of the house when her sister Rosa snatched him away and stuck him in the back bedroom with the other children, according to the Fresno Bee. Solorio would never see her son again.
Solorio was pushed from the house and Wesson stationed his massive frame in the doorway to block her from re-entering. Wesson’s supporters called the two sisters “whores” and “bitches” and ordered them to leave. Sebhrenah Wesson pointed at her father’s feet and told Ruby Sanchez to “bow down to her master” before running into the back bedroom with the children, according to news accounts.
At 2:30, a squad car pulled up. The Wesson household kept a low profile and the police had only visited twice before — once to take a report on a missing license plate, and another time on the theft of a purse from a car.
One of the responding officers would later say he heard a baby crying as he spoke with Marcus Wesson in the doorway. Wesson did not invite the officers inside, and they weren’t allowed to enter without a warrant or reasonable fear for public safety. Wesson’s preternaturally calm demeanor — as the crowd cursed and jeered around him — lead officers to believe that the patriarch would work with them toward a peaceful resolution.
But then he suddenly turned and ducked into the house, slamming the door behind him.
“He’s going to hurt the kids!” the two mothers shouted. One of Wesson’s sons told the police he owned a .22-caliber gun, and they called for a SWAT team. The police ordered the crowd to disperse and take cover themselves behind the bus and trees. An enraged woman punched the hood of a patrol car, denting it.
During the ensuing standoff, several witnesses reported hearing gunshots inside the house, according to media reports. The damning implication was that the police didn’t move to stop the massacre once it began. But all the officers present denied hearing gunshots, an assertion that was fully supported by their police chief.
Neighbors set up a memorial for the victims.
The Fresno Bee interviewed several neighbors who contradicted the official account. Maria Leyva, who lived a few houses down from the family, said she heard four gunshots as she was e-mailing her sisters shortly after 3:30 p.m.. She ran to the doorway and heard women screaming “Not my babies! Not my babies!” before returning to her computer to quickly finish her message: “There’s been a shooting here in front and apparently there are deaths,” she wrote in a missive she showed to the paper.
Wesson’s next-door neighbor was in her front yard when she heard a succession of loud explosions, but told the paper that she wasn’t sure what the noise was; she’d never heard gunfire before. Nonetheless, she said the words of one woman were unmistakable when her anguished cry rose above the commotion: “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way!”
Police remove a body from the scene.
By the time the SWAT team arrived to evacuate the neighborhood, it was all over. Wesson appeared abruptly in the doorway, his black shirt and pants spattered with blood. As officers grab him, he instructed them to use three handcuffs to encompass his thick wrists. The blood soaking his clothing was enough of a warrant to cause the officers to storm the house, and they rushed through the doorway, calling for the children.
It didn’t take long to find them, piled in the back bedroom. Each victim had been shot in the eye, and they were stacked youngest to oldest. On top of the pile was Sebhrenah, a .22-caliber pistol lodged under her arm.
Police with evidence from the scene.
The officers searched under beds and in cabinets for possible survivors, wanting desperately to amend this tragedy. There were none. For all of the officers, March 12, 2004 would become the single most traumatic day of their professional careers; many would seek counseling in an attempt to erase the horrific image of the stacked dead children from their minds.
Wesson was held at the Fresno County jail in lieu of $9 million bail and charged with nine counts of murder. DNA testing gave investigators foolproof evidence that Wesson had sired all the victims with his own daughters and nieces, and he was charged with an additional 14 counts of sexual abuse. He pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
The Fresno County Jail
His wife Elizabeth, daughter Kiani, and niece Rosa Solorio continued to voice their support for him, denying he’d done anything wrong and proclaiming him to be a wonderful husband and father.
His mother Carrie was more ambivalent.
“If Marcus is guilty, I would really feel disappointed in my country if it didn’t make him face the penalty,” Carrie Wesson told the Los Angeles Times. “But I’m a biblical person too, and I don’t believe in capital punishment … what I would like for Marcus to do is sit in prison and think about what he’s done and read the Bible.”
In jail, Wesson wrote country-western songs, which he sang for his visitors. In conversations with his family that were secretly recorded, he said he felt electrical currents in his head because God had given him an “angelic brain,” the Fresno Bee reported. “I’ve never seen that, except at the beginning of time, when the angels were mixing with men.”
By the time the case came to trial in the Fresno County Superior Court in June 2005, the attention of the national media had shifted to the case of another accused pedophile: Michael Jackson.
Fresno County Superior Court
A parade of 50 witnesses took the stand during Wesson’s three-month trial.
His lawyers argued that Sebhrenah shot the children before turning the gun on herself. According to testimony, the young woman was so fond of guns she carried cartridges in her purse and liked to play “Army,” painting her face green and black like camouflage.
According to the defense, Sebhrenah held the .22-caliber Ruger Mark II pistol to the eye of each child and squeezed the trigger before killing her sister Elizabeth and her herself. The argument was bolstered by expert testimony saying the sisters died an hour or two after the younger victims.
A similar .22-caliber Ruger Mark II pistol
Although neither the fingerprints of Marcus nor Sebhrenah Wesson were found on the pistol, Sebhrenah’s DNA was, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The prosecution rebutted by arguing that Wesson was ultimately guilty of the massacre, because he’d primed his children to kill and be killed.
“In this family, he was Christ himself, the ultimate authority figure who determined life and death,” prosecutor Lisa Gamoian told the court. “But for his suicide pact, for his teachings, none of this would have happened.”
Rosa Solorio, 23, whose children Ethan, 4, and Sedona, 1, were among the dead, wore the gold wedding ring Wesson gave her on the witness stand, and said she still loved him and considered herself his wife. Her strident support differed from a taped interview she gave Fresno detectives shortly after the slayings, when she admitted her conflicted feelings about Wesson.
Ethan St. Laurent (back) and Marshey St. Christopher
“I do love Marcus a lot,” she said in the interview. “I understand what he did and everything. But at the same time, it’s just that to me, he’s my father, and I do not want to be responsible for putting him away. I just don’t feel it’s right for me to do it.”
She told the court that Wesson bought the caskets for their mahogany wood, which he’d planned to use on a renovation project. They could also be used as beds in a pinch, she added with a straight face.
Elizabeth Wesson denied having knowledge of her husband’s sexual relations with her daughters and nieces.
“How can I protect them if they didn’t tell me? They never told me anything,” she told the court.
When the girls’ bellies started to swell, she said didn’t ask who the fathers were. Her excuse? Her own mother had 10 kids with three different men and her sister had seven children with various men — she considered it “mean and rude” to ask about fathers, she told the courtroom.
On the witness stand, Elizabeth Wesson looked at her husband before speaking, as if for direction, and was scolded for it by Gamoian. She covered her face with her hands, sobbing under the prosecutor’s rapid fire questioning, and several breaks were called to allow her to regain her composure.
The publicity from the case had made her the object of ridicule and had torn apart her family, Elizabeth Wesson said; she often was forced to sleep in her car.
Gamoian depicted Marcus Wesson as a master manipulator who brainwashed his daughters and nieces into thinking it was normal to have sex with him. He limited their access to education and the outside world until he had complete financial, physical and emotional control over their lives, she said, and convinced them that death was preferable to police interference with the family.
The women’s brothers, who were segregated from their sisters at an early age and left home long before the murders, also spoke out about their father in court.
Marcus Wesson, Jr., 22, said he was surprised when his sisters and cousins, who weren’t allowed to date, started showing. They told him they got pregnant by artificial insemination, but he thought the whole thing was “weird.” When he learned that DNA proved his father sired children with his sisters and cousins, he told the court “that’s not right. I don’t want that happening.”
Adrian Wesson, 29, was also suspicious.
“The (babies) looked like my father,” Adrian told the jurors. In particular, they’d inherited Marcus Wesson’s distinctive pug nose.
Another son, Dorian, 30, called his father “insane” because he thought he was Jesus Christ and believed in vampires, but also described him as highly intelligent.
Almae Wesson, a son of Wesson’s.
Death Plus 102
After a little more than two days of deliberation, the jury found Wesson guilty of nine counts of first-degree murder, and 14 counts of raping and molesting his underage nieces and daughters.
The jurors wrestled with the evidence for more than two weeks and ultimately decided that Wesson himself pulled the trigger on at least some of the victims, the Associated Press reported.
As the clerk read the verdicts, many of Wesson’s surviving family members stifled sobs while Wesson himself remained quiet. He wore the same short-sleeved black shirt he wore throughout the trial, and appeared to have shrunk to half the 300 pounds he weighed at the time of his arrest.
As the courtroom emptied, Wesson’s relatives rushed from the building and neither the prosecution nor the defense would answer reporters’ questions.
Defense Attorney David Mugridge
A month later, Fresno County Superior Court Judge R.L. Putnam accepted the jury’s recommendation for the death penalty. The judge also sentenced Wesson to 102 years in prison for sexually abusing his daughters and nieces.
Kiani Wesson continued to defend her father to the bitter end, blaming her cousins for the deaths because they tried to break up the family by retrieving their children.
“I am proud of all my family, of the way we were raised,” she told the court, her voice breaking.
Wesson’s defense team filed a motion asking the judge to grant their client a new trial, or reduce his sentence to life in prison. Putnam denied both requests, stating that the “continued love of him by some family members” was the only leniency Wesson could expect.
Jurors said they felt vindicated by the judge’s ruling.
“It was hard — we had a lot of sleepless nights,” juror Alex Florez told the Associated Press. “It was a lot of work, but this is closure for us — to feel we’ve done our civic duty.”